The sign out front says “ALWAYS OPEN,” but all things must end. After half a century on the corner of Fifth and C streets in Eureka, the last remaining Denny’s in Humboldt County will permanently close at the end of the month.
Owners Safar and Lori Ghaffari say they’re ready to retire, and after failing to find another Denny’s franchisee willing to take over the location, they found a couple who intends to lease and renovate the restaurant, turning it into another popular restaurant chain known for its American-style breakfasts: IHOP.
“I look at the hospitality business as a big book: one chapter closes, another chapter opens,” Safar Ghaffari said.
I spoke to him and his wife this morning on speakerphone as I sat in a booth-style bench seat at the far end of the dining room. Above the bench was a framed, mural-sized photo of the Woodley Island Marina. Superimposed on the photo was the iconic yellow and red Denny’s sign impaled atop a giant fork above the words, “Good Food, Good Friends, Good Times.”
Before sitting down for this phone interview I’d spoken with the manager on duty, a shift supervisor named Kelley. (Both the workers on duty and the Ghaffaris agreed that it would probably be best not to publish any of the employees’ last names since they’ve had to 86 a few rough customers over the years.)
Kelley has worked at this Denny’s for 31 years. She and her 22 coworkers learned of the pending closure at an employee meeting on Wednesday, which means they each got two weeks’ notice about their pending unemployment.
“I’m hoping that the IHOP people will hire us,” Kelley said. “That’s what we’re all hoping for.”
Safar Ghaffari said he tried to reassure his employees that they had nothing to worry about on that front.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy? Of course you’re gonna have a job. It’s your choice whether you can stay a few weeks.’” He feels confident that the new IHOP managers, who will lease the building from the Ghaffaris, will be eager to hire everyone who’s currently on staff.
”I would estimate that they’re all going to [be hired] as long as they stay during the transition, because it takes time to change to a new brand,” he said. He estimates that the building will be closed for four to six weeks while the place is remodeled and converted into an IHOP.
His wife chimed in with a bit of history, saying this Denny’s has been around since the early 1960s — ‘63 or ‘64, she figures, though there’s a framed photo inside bearing the label “1960 Denny’s Waitresses.” It shows three stern-looking women standing outside the Eureka restaurant, next to one of the chain’s characteristic walls of rough-hewn stone.
“It’s always been a really popular spot,” Lori Ghaffari said. “And I really appreciate our team that has been dedicated to serving the community and people that are coming through our area for the redwoods and that sort of thing. You know, they’re really the backbone of any public serving industry. They’re really Denny’s. We really appreciate our staff. They’ve been great.”
Her husband agreed, saying the employees are “just like our extended family, basically. I’m hoping they all choose to stay within the new [franchisee] because that individual needs them real bad, no doubt.”
The Ghaffaris took over the Eureka Denny’s in 2000, seven years after opening a Denny’s in Fortuna, which Safar Ghaffari said was his first business.
“And I built that one, too,” he said. “I built a lot of locations on the West Coast.”
His career with Denny’s began where most new employees start: washing dishes. “Halloween night in 1975,” he recalled. He still remembers the address: 1776 Powell Street in Emeryville, Calif. That year would turn out to be a momentous one for Safar. He met Lori on Cinco de Mayo, started working at Denny’s on Halloween and married Lori on December 3.
“It all happened in 1975; the rest is history,” he said.
He wound up working on the corporate side of Denny’s for about 14 years, working at Denny’s in the Bay Area and Sacramento. After building the Fortuna Denny’s and taking over the Eureka one, the Ghaffaris opened a location in McKinleyville, but in anticipation of their pending retirement they shut it down on December 28. It’s slated to become a Mountain Mike’s Pizza.
They sold the one in Fortuna to a former business partner years ago. It closed unceremoniously in 2009.
Kelley, the shift manager, said the new IHOP managers hired someone who came in recently to take measurements for the pending conversion.
“It’s been up for sale for quite a while,” she said.
As we talked, Kelley’s coworkers went back and forth from the kitchen to the dining area, where people sat sipping coffee and pushing forks through soft, syrupy pancakes, possibly consuming the chain’s signature dish: the Grand Slam breakfast.
The Ghaffaris were cheerful throughout our conversation. Safar said the new operators are in the process of selecting a contractor for the renovations and getting the necessary permits from the city. He said he’d like to keep things on a positive note, and he hopes people will welcome the “new concept” of an IHOP.
“It’s still bacon and eggs,” he said. “Still Kelley’s gonna take care of [customers], and hopefully the restaurant can stay.”
Before hanging up he offered well-wished: “Have a Grand Slam day!”
One last note:
Earlier this week, after learning about the sudden (though temporary) closure of the Samoa Cookhouse (whose employees were reportedly laid off without any advance notice), the Outpost reached out to the Humboldt County Office of Economic Development to learn what resources are available for people who suddenly find themselves out of work.
Economic Development Director Scott Adair forwarded a fact sheet from the state’s Employment Development Department listing rapid response resources for employers and laid off workers. (Click here to download a copy.)
The county has its own layoff aversion and rapid response programs, offering no-cost resources to businesses and workers in the event of a business closure or planned “layoff event.” More information can be found here.